August 10, 2001

Commentary

Welfare Reform: A New Look

by Sister Kathy Thornton, RSM

August 22 marks the five-year anniversary Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill. Designed to end "welfare as we know it," the 1996 law had a major impact on people living in poverty, ending their entitlement to government assistance beyond a lifetime five-year limit and putting in place other limitations and sanctions. Many of our nation's Latino residents, particularly those who are recent immigrants, were affected by the new law.

In the ensuing years, some have cited declining welfare rolls and rising employment rates as evidence of welfare reform's success. As a result, much of the public has been lulled into a feeling of complacency, and little attention has been paid to the upcoming reauthorization by the U.S. Congress of welfare reform legislation.

Fortunately, this lack of attention is now changing.

Major new studies are finding that welfare reform has either exacerbated or failed to alleviate the suffering of a large number of people, including many Latinos. While acknowledging that there have been genuine success stories —people who have found jobs that provide them with sufficient resources to support themselves and their families— these studies show that too many people continue to suffer severe deprivation and are unable to get the help they need.

One such study was conducted by NETWORK, a Washington-based national Catholic social justice lobby, in partnership with three national organizations of Catholic sisters and Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace movement. Because of our connections with faith-based groups working within impoverished communities, we were able to gain direct access to people most affected by welfare reform.

After interviewing thousands of patrons of emergency facilities such as soup kitchens and charitable health clinics over a four-year period, we found that many people, including current and former welfare recipients with incomes both below and above the poverty line, are often unable to meet their most basic needs. In addition, many people in need are unable to receive government assistance because of unjust regulations of lack of access to services. As a result, they turn to emergency facilities to care for themselves and their families.

More than one-third of our survey respondents were of Latino origin. Almost three-fourths of this group lived below the poverty line, compared with just over 60 percent of the white non-Latino or African American respondents. This is despite the fact that Latino survey respondents were more likely than either the white non-Latinos or African Americans to hold jobs and to be married and living in two-parent families.

More than one-half of the Latinos had never received TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Less than one-third currently received food stamps, compared with almost half of the white non-Latinos and African Americans.

Thus, not only did the Latinos we surveyed experience greater poverty, they were also receiving less assistance than other groups.

Reasons for these disparities include language barriers and laws that discriminate against immigrants. Because many Latinos in our survey held jobs that did not include benefits such as health insurance, they were particularly hard hit by 1996 legislation that limited immigrants' access to government health coverage. More than half the Latinos we surveyed reported they were without any health insurance - either private or public.

While conducting our survey, we also found welfare reform "successes" —people with jobs who had moved above the poverty line— in our soup kitchens and other emergency facilities. Fully one-third of all the people we surveyed came from households with incomes that exceed the federal poverty income level, and three-quarters of this group had at one time been on welfare.

Clearly, they were better off in some ways than those earning less. And yet, they were in soup kitchens and other emergency facilities. Why? Partly because of a lack of job benefits. For example, 80 percent of those who lost their food stamps or medical assistance when their job income rose reported that their higher incomes did not cover the benefits they lost. To compound the problem, a shortage of affordable housing meant that their housing costs were often unreasonably high.

The fact that such poverty and deprivation continue in the wake of welfare reform indicates that much remains to be done before we can call welfare reform a genuine success. When people are able to find jobs, Congress must not ignore them as they struggle in poverty and are unable to meet their basic needs. Congress must also address the needs of those who are unable to move into the workforce and the millions of children living in poverty. Finally, it must rescind unjust laws and regulations that discriminate against immigrants.

The welfare reform reauthorization process gives Congress an opportunity to better address the needs of people in poverty. A nation of conscience should demand no less.

Sister Kathy Thornton, RSM, is National Coordinator of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. The report is available on the NETWORK Web site (www.networklobby.org).

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